Masayo Duus
The Life of Isamu Noguchi:
Journey without Borders,
translated by Peter Duus.
Princeton, 432 pages $29.95

The life of Isamu Noguchi is a story of near-operatic proportions. His mother, Leonie, a Bryn Mawr girl, finds work as a translator in turn-of-the-century California. His father, Yonejiro (“Yone”), styles himself a Romantic poet of the European variety and books a third-class passage from Japan to stake an artistic claim in America. In 1904, as Yone is en route to Japan, Leonie gives birth to their illegitimate son—and a sculptor is born.

Isamu Noguchi’s life as a mixed-race American is now the focus of Masayo Duus’s new biography, and there are fascinating moments: Noguchi’s voluntary internment during World War II, for example, and the fame his estranged father eventually found in Imperialist Japan.

But art is not Duus’s strength, and much of the narrative here is flat; one hopes something is lost in translation. Through his unorthodox materials—wood, string, electric lights—and his penchant for kitsch—e.g., his “lunar landscapes”—Noguchi became a bridge between the high modernism of Brancusi and the late (post?) modernism of the postminimalists. He occupied an odd position in American art for reasons beyond his Japanese heritage. But for the great biography of Noguchi the artist, we will still have to wait. Noguchi’s short autobiography of 1968, A Sculptor’s World, for now remains the primary source for unlocking this sculptor’s art.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 23 Number 6, on page 76
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